It’s no secret that a big upper back is important for being strong at just about anything. And I feel like it’s a strength training rite of passage when you realize that in order to build a big bench press, you need to train your upper back like there’s no tomorrow.
In Bench Like A Beast, I’ve carefully chosen the back exercises (as well as the sets, reps and loading) to specifically build the bench press while keeping the shoulders healthy. I’ll break down the “why” and the “how” in this article.
WHY IS THE UPPER BACK SO IMPORTANT?
Your Pressing Foundation
Your back creates the foundation from which you bench press. Think of it like the foundation of a building. If you’re going to build a skyscraper, you wouldn’t build it on loose sand, you’d build it on solid cement.
The back muscles help support and control proper bar path during the bench press as well. We’re mostly talking about the muscles that pull your shoulders blades down and back “into your back pockets” and not so much the lats. While the lats are often described as if they play a huge role in the bench press, turns out that’s actually not the case. Greg Nuckols wrote an awesome article explaining why.
Regardless of which muscles do what, a huge upper back will also reduce your bench press range of motion because you’ll have a thicker torso in relation to your arm length. So don’t be afraid to get a big ol’ pump and learn to build the mind-muscle connection for increased hypertrophy.
Working the muscles you can’t see in the mirror is also associated with improved shoulder health because the back muscles (rhomboids, lats, posterior deltoids, etc.) oppose the muscles on the front of the torso (mostly the pecs and anterior deltoids) that draw the shoulders forward into “poor posture”.
Many lifters believe you can simply balance your pressing exercises with more pulling movements like rows and pulldowns to keep your shoulders healthy. If only it were that simple. There’s something to be said for muscular symmetry, but healthy shoulders require specific back and rotator cuff exercises along with special attention to HOW you perform these exercises.
Back exercises fall into several categories and some work better than others for building the bench press. Choose wisely.
The most common back exercises fall into the horizontal pulling category where the shoulder blade and the humerus (arm bone) are moving horizontally. This happens to be the same plane in which you bench press, making this category hands-down the most important for benching.
Want a huge bench? Do more rows. Row heavy with both arms. Row heavy with one arm. Row light with cables. Row, row and row some more.
Here are a few of the variations I use in Bench Like A Beast:
Barbell Bent-Over Row: These have the most direct carryover to the bench press because you use a barbell and you can basically replicate the eccentric portion of the bench. You can go pretty heavy, but I recommend erring on the lighter side at first so you can learn to use perfect form and not stress your lower back too much.
1-Arm Dumbbell Row: My favorite back exercise of all time. These can do everything: strength, hypertrophy, muscular endurance, grip, etc. Plus, if you do them right, they’re tremendous for shoulder health and they don’t beat up your lower back like barbell bent-over rows.
Dumbbell Seal Row: A less common exercise, the Seal row teaches you to arch your upper back exactly how you would while bench pressing. The shoulder blades don’t retract very well unless you’re in a “chest up” position, so I like these for teaching that. Plus, it takes everything else out of the movement so you just hammer your back muscles.
Next, you’ve got vertical pulling, which includes back exercises that also take the shoulder blade and humerus through a more “up and down” motion, to put it simply. This is highly specific to the “down and back” aspect of setting the shoulders during the bench press, but if you control the eccentric portion and “reach” to let your lats stretch during each rep, it can also improve shoulder health.
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldowns: Pulldowns are my go-to vertical pulling exercise to build the bench. You can use a similar grip width to the bench press and closely mimic the upper back arch as well.
Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldowns: While not as specific to the bench press, neutral grip lat pulldowns have always allowed me to get a great squeeze and “feel” my back muscles working better than wide grip pulldowns.
Why No Pull-Ups?
Pull-ups and chin-ups are amazing, no doubt, but I chose to omit them in Bench Like A Beast. I prefer pulldowns for building the back specifically for the bench press because…
- More Joint-Friendly: Pull-ups tend to beat up people’s shoulders and elbows, and if you’re already pounding those joints with lots of heavy benching, you need to pick joint-friendly accessory exercises.
- Less Grip Intensive: What fails first on pull-ups, your grip or your back muscles? The answer is obvious, and if your grip fails, you can’t build as much muscle. Pulldowns keep all the muscle-building benefits while being easier on your grip.
- More Scalable: I know a lot of people, even STRONG people, who can’t do a full set of pull-ups with proper form. They’re just really hard. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t take the time to get good at them, but in the case of building the bench, pulldowns give you a wider range of weight selection to accomplish the task at hand.
Isolated Upper Back
This is a hard category to describe, but upper back exercises that hit the smaller muscles of the back of the shoulder (rear deltoids, rotator cuff, rhomboids, etc.) while taking the lats OUT of the movement are actually some of the most important for shoulder health.
Band Pull-Aparts: I love pull-aparts both as a warm-up drill and as a way to finish off the muscles the retract the scaps without having to go heavy or tax your grip with rows. (Note: If you want the full instructional video, pick up a copy of Bench Like A Beast to get over 70 exercise demos.)
Face Pulls: It’s hard to categorize face pulls. They’re kind of a hybrid exercise that combines a row with pull-apart plus a little rotator cuff thrown in for good measure. When done with proper technique, this is one of the best exercises you can do for shoulder health.
If there’s anything I learned during my tenure at Cressey Sports Performance, it’s that direct rotator cuff training is for EVERYONE, not just baseball players. It only takes a few sets of a few exercises a couple times per week to keep the cuff healthy and happy.
Half-Kneeling Cable External Rotation: External rotations are the primary way to train the rotator cuff for shoulder health. I’m a huge fan of using cables for this because you get the same resistance during the entire range of motion, which is key for small muscles that can’t move a ton of weight. Make sure to feel this one ONLY in the back of your shoulder, not the front.
Side-Lying External Rotation: To get the full benefit of external rotations, you need to train them both in the 90-90 position shown above AND with the arm closer to the side. Research actually shows the cuff is most active in this position. (NOTE: This is another private video, so you gotta buy the book to see it. Them’s the breaks!)
BIG BACK = BIG BENCH
This just scratches the surface of all the upper back training you get in Bench Like A Beast. I hope I’ve made it clear as day as to why you MUST work the hell out of your back if you want to press big weights.
Now’s your last chance to pick up a copy of Bench Like A Beast for the sale price of only $29. The price goes up at midnight tonight, so act now to save over 40% off the full price.